Wednesday, January 03, 2007

What Does ‘Conservative’ Really Mean?, Part 2

As I said in Part 1 I wish to describe the basic themes and concerns of a genuine, authentic conservatism. My previous efforts at this have been too brief and sketchy. Perhaps some will be surprised to learn of the key tenets of genuine conservatism, especially if you've become used to the pseudo-conservative ideology successfully sold to Americans since the 1950s under the misappropriated terms ‘conservatism’ and ‘conservative.’ The primary concerns of modern political conservatism hark back to Edmund Burke’s critique of the French Revolution first published in 1790; Burke is named by most as the father of modern, self-conscious conservatism. In this post I will present some of the views of Claes Ryn’s book, America the Virtuous.

As I stated in Part 1, perhaps the primary belief of conservatives is that human beings are possessed of base impulses and these need to be controlled if we are to have a civilized society. Such impulses include arrogance, pride, a desire for power over others, selfishness and self indulgence, belligerence, ruthlessness, etc. Conservatives see religion, morality and traditional social institutions as teaching and encouraging control of these baser motives. A morality emphasizing self-control is seen as essential to civilized life. In America the Virtuous Claes Ryn, whom I consider an authentic American conservative, wrote (p. 18) that Enlightenment writers like Rousseau, through a “denial of a darker side of human nature—what Christianity sometimes discusses in terms of ‘original sin’—undermined the ancient belief that checks, internal and external, must be placed on individual and collective action.” Much of modern conservatism is highly critical of the positive view of humans expressed during the Enlightenment and is especially critical of Rousseau. Ryn argued that the Founding Fathers who fashioned our representative, constitutional democracy were for the most part conservatives in this sense. “Constitutional democracy assumes a human nature divided between higher and lower potentialities and sees a need to guard against merely self-serving, imprudent, and even tyrannical impulses in the individual and the people as a whole (Ryn, p. 50).”

Ryn continued (p. 55): “In the West, the decentralized society is deeply rooted in Christian ideas of community and virtue, which are akin to earlier Greek ideas…. The individual’s primary moral responsibility is to make the best of self and to love neighbor. This is a demanding notion of virtue, for nothing is more difficult than overcoming one’s own selfishness and behaving charitably toward people of flesh and blood at close range.” Ryn is distinguishing the latter charity from an abstract commitment to the betterment of people who live at a great distance and are not experienced personally like ‘the downtrodden’, ‘mankind’, ‘the proletariat’, or ‘the poor.’ Ryn wrote that (p. 57): “the effect of the old morality of character is to build self-restraint and respect for others… and to reduce the danger of conflict. The emphasis on curbing arrogance, greed, and other types of self-indulgence increases the chances for harmonious relations.”

Frankly, it’s difficult for me to see how this premise of conservatism can be denied, i.e., the base impulses described definitely do exist and are strong in humans; civilization does require control of such impulses. Perhaps some might differ about precisely which institutions are best able to teach such self-control, but the need for it should not be controversial.

A second prime value of conservatism emphasizes the importance of concrete, local, face-to-face groups such as families, small groups, and local communities. Ryn wrote that (p. 52): "Constitutional democracy assumes a decentralized society in which the lives of most citizens are centered in small, chiefly private, and local associations, what the late Robert Nisbet called ‘autonomous groups.’ These can exercise independent authority. In the decentralized society there are many centers and levels of power. Political authority is widely dispersed, enabling regional and local entities to decide for themselves…. People tend to define their own interests not as discrete individuals but as members of the groups that they most treasure, starting with the family and other associations at close range. By the ‘people,’ then, constitutional democracy does not mean an undifferentiated mass of individuals….”

This is an important and possibly little known conservative tenet. In the 1950s there were a great number of social analyses published heralding the coming of a ‘mass society.’ This was a society where small, local, face-to-face relationships were eroded and replaced by centralized authority that was distant from and less influenced by individuals and their small, primary groups. As the natural authority of small, local, ‘autonomous groups’ was eroded, society was said to be “atomized” and individuals had fewer and fewer local ties with one another; they became more and more an undifferentiated mass. With the spread of urbanization and the consequent shrinkage of locality accompanying a less rural society it is hard to deny that this is true to some considerable extent. Usually such analyses (see Robert Nisbet’s The Quest for Community, first published in 1953) have emphasized the state as sucking up the powers of localities and creating the mass society. I suspect this is because in America it is relatively rare to read mainstream academics who are willing to criticize American industrialization leading to huge centralized corporations as a primary factor in creating atomized ‘mass’ individuals whose primary function is to consume in a self-indulgent fashion. My guess is the two primary motives to growth in the central government in America have been (1) the growth of huge corporations in the late 19th century requiring central government as a 'countervailing power' and (2) the huge increase in government due to a more and more massive 'defense' and 'security' presence (the latter probably due in significant part to the growth of American imperialism beginning in the late 19th century, see Stephen Kinzer's Overthrow: America's Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq).

Okay, this post is getting too long! I'll continue in Part 3.

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